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Power Point | December 2015

Nuclear regulator, liability the industry

When talking about Nuclear power, there are two immediate issues that need attention: a) the nuclear regulator and b) the issue of nuclear liability. The Government needs to replace the existing, quasi-independent nuclear regulator with a truly independent one. While nuclear liability law enacted by the parliament is pro-people and in the interest of the government, the attempt to dilute the law is anti-national.

India is a country in which the entertainment industry has a stronger regulator compared to the nuclear industry. The recently released James Bond movie ´Spectre´ stands testimony to that statement. Scenes in the James Bond movie requires immediate censorship however incidents such as the radioactive contamination at a west Delhi scrap market does not warrant immediate reforms. Five years have passed since a regulatory failure in Delhi turned into a major nuclear accident, however, lessons are yet to be learnt.

The incident in question is this: In April 2010, Delhi University´s unused Gamma irradiator, auctioned off to a scrap dealer, ended up spewing radioactive contamination in Mayapuri. Little did the scrap dealer know that the equipment contained a highly dangerous radioactive substance known as cobalt-60 and transported it to his workshop in Mayapuri where his workers began to dismantle it. Unaware of the danger and amused by this unknown substance, the dealer took a piece of it along with him to investigate. Not only did this accident cause radioactive contamination, but also resulted in hospitalisation of eight and the death of one. The Mayapuri accident is certainly not the only story that highlights the failures of the nuclear regulator in India, it is however one of the few stories that demonstrates the inefficiencies that plague the regulator. And for that reason, it is important to revisit the regulatory lapses that allow for accidents like the one in Mayapuri to happen. The first lapse was auctioned off the equipment to a scrap dealer instead of safely decommissioning it. The second happened when National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) declared the area safe without a thorough check.

It was only when Greenpeace Radiation safety experts arrived at the spot that several radioactive hotspots were discovered. Greenpeace immediately informed NDMA and AERB about it and a press conference was organised to inform the media, which in turn forced AERB to return to Mayapuri and begin decontamination work. According to the International Nuclear and Radiation Event Scale (INES), the Mayapuri accident was rated as a level 4 (accident) with level 7 being the highest (Fukushima nuclear accident has been rated as a level 7). Despite this serious regulatory lapse, the nuclear regulator in India remains dependent on a department mandated with promotion of nuclear industry.

After Fukushima accident, an attempt was made by the Department of Atomic Energy to introduce a quasi independent nuclear regulator. This obviously did not work. The Nuclear Regulator Safety Authority (NSRA) bill that was introduced in the Lok Sabha in September 2011, was differed to the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Science and Technology. The Parliamentary committee deliberated on its task and came out with a set of recommendations. Independent think tanks also concluded that certain clauses in the bill made the regulator dependent and exposed to industry influence. For instance, the inclusion of the Chairman of Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on the nuclear safety committee would cause conflict of interest since it is in the interest of the AEC to promote nuclear industry. A promoter´s interest can never align with the task of a regulator. Another instance of industry influence can be seen when the funding of the regulator depends on the industry promoter. A conscious attempt needs to be made to separate the two.

The international Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducted a 12-day review of the AERB from the 16th till the 27th of March, 2015. The Integrated Regulatory Review Service (IRRS) of the IAEA submitted its draft report to the Indian government at the end of the review which contains its observations and recommendations for the AERB. The team has amongst other recommendations made the following statement: ´The Government should embed AERB´s regulatory independence in law, separated from other entities having responsibilities or interests that could unduly influence its decision making.´

While the NSRA will address the concern of ´independence in law´, unless the above recommendations are not adopted, the new regulator will have even lesser independence than AERB.

Nuclear liability
The Nuclear Liability Act, passed by the Parliament has been praised by many around the world for its ´polluter pays´ principle. The Act has also been criticised by a few. Those criticising the law have mostly been either foreign diplomats or nuclear suppliers.

In a letter dated May 28, 2012, the GE Hitachi President and CEO, Peter Mason, argues that nuclear reactor manufacturers should not be made liable regardless of fault. In his letter to the director of a government division that deals with radioactive waste, Mason argued that accountability to accidents and supplier liability exposes nuclear suppliers to huge a financial risk. He supported his argument by using Bhopal gas tragedy and the compensation paid as an example.

Of course, the letter was GE´s submission to the ongoing debate in regards to ´consultation paper on the modernisation of Canada´s Nuclear Liability Regime´. Unlike India, Canada does not have a supplier liability clause in its liability regime. However, Canada does have an amendment that is set to increase the total liability to about $1 billion. In comparison, India´s total nuclear liability stands at measly $225 million. Merely on grounds of population density, the likelihood of damage caused to humans in India due to nuclear accident would be far greater compared to the damage caused in Canada.

This paltry amount of nuclear liability in India still remains a major concern for most of the foreign nuclear suppliers. In an interview, the head of GE, Jeff Immelt ruled out entering Indian market stating that he is not going to put his ´company at risk for anything´.

Foreign nuclear suppliers would prefer that the liability be tied to the operator which is a government owned company and therefore ultimately dependent on the tax payer´s money. In case of an accident, perhaps they´d prefer that the government add nuclear accident cess in addition of Swachh Bharat cess?

Author: Hozefa Merchant, Nuclear Analyst, Greenpeace India

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